Advances in AI – The Future

by 5m Editor
12 March 2012, at 10:42am

UK - Already delivering the ‘best of the best’ genetics and farrowing rates of up to 95 per cent, the role of AI in pig production is assured. But what of the future? What is the focus of current research and development? Here, Head of Science Stephen Waite and Stud Manager Steve Cook of JSR Genetics tell how latest research initiatives offer plenty for pig producers now and even more to look forward to.

“In AI, we’re giving our customers the ‘best of the best’ genetics,“ says Steve Cook,“ quicker and without the time and effort involved in looking after a boar. As Stud Manager, much of my focus is on the practical side, improving services to my customers. Last November we invested heavily in the 100 per cent changeover of two studs to fully automatic packing machines that, using touch screen technology, fill up to 1,300 flat packs of semen per hour with an accuracy of +/- 1 per cent.

The biggest bonus for customers is the new flat pack itself. Designed with a tapered spout they will fit onto any catheters with a tight, leak free fit and the easy to use twist off end can be resealed if opened by mistake. Knowing that lighting can be very subdued in some sheds, we also insisted that our new flat packs had clear, easy to read labels.“

On-going research at JSR is also being undertaken on the viability of offering sex selected semen. “This would be a pivotal development for the pig industry,“ explains Head of Science Stephen Waite, “being able to offer producers single sex semen, with the majority being females, as they are far more valuable. In the pig industry, a potentially achievable, and preferable, split would be eight gilts to two boars. However, the barrier to progress is being able to sex semen at a speed that is commercially viable.“

Currently, the BPEX semen dosage standard guarantees over 2 billion single sperm in every single dose. This means that to offer a single dose of single sexed semen, over two billion sperm have to undergo the sex selection process. In pigs, this process is achieved using flow cytometers which work by detecting the tiny weight differential between male and female sperm – only around 0.8 per cent. For pigs, the quickest you can do this is 2,000 cells per second so it takes 11.5 days to produce a one billion female only dose or 23 days to sex a two billion female only dose, which is not viable due to cost.

“By comparison,“ explains Dr Waite, “in cattle, where a single dose only has to contain 2.5 million sperm, and the male/female weight differential is more marked, 10,000 cells can be processed per second. That’s what makes sexed sperm a commercial proposition for the cattle industry and we believe that, given lobbying to have the UK standard dose lowered is successful, this can become the case for the pig industry too.“

At present, JSR is working closely with research partners Harper Adams University College, conducting trials on the effect of semen concentration on farrowing rates. This is a vital consideration when investigating the possibility of lowering the amount of semen per dose to make sexed boar semen a valid proposition.

“Having started with a 100 million sperm dose, then 200 million and 400 million, all inseminated using deep inter-uterine catheters, we are confident of proving that using a lower dose will work without compromising production,“ says Dr Waite, “and animals at Harper Adams that are now about to farrow will provide constructive results. Once we can ascertain an optimal low dose for pigs – and we suspect this may be around 400 million - we will carry on our work with the University of York, who are currently involved in research with leading flow cytometer manufactures, to make that dose as easy as possible to sex. Every year, sexing cells is getting faster, say by a factor of ten, but there is still some way to go. Having said that, new chemicals that bind onto the male/female cells to make them easier to sort by weight are opening up yet another promising avenue for research. Just one breakthrough could completely revolutionize the industry.“

Another project, for which JSR together with the University of Kent and the Bridge Fertility Centre, have just been awarded a 3500,000 Technology Strategy Board Grant involves research into pig IVF- an initiative that will be of particular interest to international customers.

“Currently, sending genetics in the form of live animals, to international customers, whilst hugely beneficial, can be a complex and costly exercise. In 2011, JSR hired an entire Boeing 747 to send 1,000 pigs to China. To comply with export regulations each animal has to be tested at around 3250 per animal – that’s 3250,000 for the whole consignment - and travel in more spacious accommodation than most humans. By comparison, embryos suspended in a flask require just one test and can travel as luggage on a normal commuter flight.“

“Working with the Bridge Fertility Centre and Dr Kate Fowler of the University of Kent, who JSR also sponsored as a PhD student, is an excellent example of promoting skills and expertise together,“ says Dr Waite. “At present, different people have managed to do different parts of the process but no one has managed to pull the whole process together. We think that there will be gains all round for both human and animal fertility. At JSR we will be able to offer a more convenient, more cost-effective service with substantial savings to the value of around 3600,000 per 1,000 animal order being passed down the supply chain.“